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Surf's up -- in Munich

October 16, 2006|Michael Scott Moore | MICHAEL SCOTT MOORE is a Fulbright journalist in Berlin and author of a novel, "Too Much of Nothing."

A KID WITH blond, spiked hair and an elaborately pierced face dumps his surfboard under a chestnut tree in Munich's English Garden and pulls on his wetsuit. "Hey, I've never done this before," he says to a stranger. "What should I know?"

"It's a fast wave," says the other surfer. "Shallow too. There's concrete under there, so if you fall, fall flat."

They watch a surfer with black dreadlocks carve back and forth in the rushing water of the Eisbach (Ice Creek), a man-made channel that feeds the Isar River. The Isar figures prominently in the history of Bavarian beer, Alpine hiking and Roman incursions into Europe, but it's not on your average map of surf spots. Munich, nevertheless, has a surf scene. Two waves in the city's water system have become the most famous places to surf -- OK, the only places to surf -- in the German interior.

The Eisbach wave, formed by a concrete weir and wooden planks, doesn't crash from one end to the other like an ocean wave; it's a turbulent yet stationary curl, like a river rapid. The water charges up from under a stone bridge on the Prinzregentenstrasse edge of the English Garden, Munich's massive central park. The surfers, who jump in one at a time, seem to dance in place. The guy in dreadlocks wipes out and floats downriver. "Your turn," says the stranger.

The pierced kid, Emi Haseloff, tries a few times but gives up after a nasty wipeout. "I've been surfing in Portugal for six or seven years, but this is different," he says. "The water comes so fast, and there are rocks underneath." He shows me a gouge on his hip that oozes fresh blood.

One of the locals is a 20-year-old hotshot named Sebastian Kawiter (a.k.a. Basti). He trims expertly a few times on the man-made wave, then decides to adjust it -- he clambers along one wet stone arch of the bridge and stands on one of its piers, precariously, with water rushing around his feet, to pull on ropes that anchor wide underwater wooden planks. This is a highly dangerous maneuver. He stands right under one of several signs warning that climbing on the bridge is illegal and "can be fatal." (Rules in Germany often announce the risk of death.)

But Basti has no fear. The city of Munich may have laid the concrete weir decades ago to slow the Eisbach, but who put those planks in the water? "We did," Basti says. "Us surfers."

Eisbach surfing is illegal, technically. But Munich police have tolerated it since about 1999, enough time for a young generation of locals such as Basti to learn to surf without going near an ocean. The dreadlocked guy, Hubert Hadersdorfer, grew up in Munich and learned to "river surf," but then spent a few years in Cornwall on England's southwestern coast (another unlikely surf spot). "I learned to ocean surf there," he says. Now he lives in Munich, so the Eisbach's his local break. When I ask what he does for a living, he says, "I just surf."

They line up in wetsuits on either side of the creek and take turns. Some are women. Isa Biehl, a 23-year-old snowboarder with blond dreadlocks, looks a bit tentative. "This isn't my local break," she says, "the Flosslande is" -- meaning a smaller and gentler wave in another part of the English Garden. "It doesn't run as fast. But they shut the water off in September, so today it's probably flat."

For the last six years, the Flosslande has been the site of the Munich Surf Open, sponsored by Quiksilver, the surf brand with chic stores in New York, London and Paris. At least one professional surfer, Quirin Rohleder, started his career in Munich. Rohleder used to be an Eisbach kid, but now he's a sponsored pro. "The Eisbach was like a beach for me," he says. "I went there every day, except for the winter obviously."

Tourists stop along Prinzregentenstrasse to watch and snap photos. Some wander into the leafy park to gawk. The surfers know they're cool, and the scene is either a sign of the universal pleasure of a Polynesian sport or a symptom of how California youth culture has taken over the world. Maybe a little of both. Hollywood movies, hip-hop, skateboarding, MTV -- it's as if Europe can't come up with its own way to rebel. Two Munich police officers amble down the slope while Basti tries to tinker with the wave. They're potbellied, green-uniformed, fatherly and slow. One of them crooks a finger. He and Basti have a chat. Then Basti comes back to his board (a beat-up red fiberglass thing fixed with duct tape) quivering with rage. "They just ordered me to keep out of the English Garden," he says, which means he really can't surf in the Eisbach now (technically). He spits and says: "What were they doing anyway, walking by right at that moment? Normally they just stop and watch us surf."

His friend, a tall kid with no shirt who doesn't give his name, shakes his head. He has wiry muscles and as much of a tan as German surfers get. "Munich cops are bastards," he says.

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